As Cambodia’s main opposition party faces dissolution and political tensions rise ahead of next year’s general election, analysts have said the ruling Cambodian People’s Party is seeking to eliminate all opposition.
“I think that what you’re seeing here that is just a desire to completely eliminate any form of opposition to Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party,” said Olivia Enos, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “And I think this has the potential almost to eliminate any sort of freedom that you have in Cambodia.”
As part of a crackdown on democratic voices, authorities have ordered US-funded National Democratic Institute to leave Cambodia and shut down dozens of local radio stations. An independent English-language newspaper, the Cambodia Daily, was also closed down for allegedly owing $6 million in back taxes and interest to the government.
On Monday, ruling Cambodian People’s Party lawmakers unanimously voted to amend the election laws to pave the way for the redistribution of the opposition party’s seats.
“Hun Sen can pass any law he wants,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “It doesn’t make the law legitimate. It doesn’t make his action legitimate.”
The 55 seats won by the opposition party in the 2013 elections will be distributed among five other political parties if Kem Sokha, CNRP president, is found guilty of “treason” and his party is dissolved. Prime Minister Hun Sen said this will bring more parties into parliament, proving his government’s commitment to multi-party democracy. The opposition boycotted Monday’s session calling the move a “robbery of people’s will.”
“It’s just a game and nobody takes the game of dissolving the CNRP and then picking five new people to run new parties and giving them seats,” Adams said. “Seriously, nobody will accept that new parliament as legitimate because he is basically taking the votes of millions of Cambodians in 2013 and flushing them down the toilet.”
Adams said Hun Sen is now showing the world that he is the one running the show.
The international community has voiced strong opposition to Sokha’s arrest and called for an easing of tensions.
The International Republican Institute said it was “deeply troubled” by the deterioration of political freedoms in Cambodia.
“The recent arrest of Kem Sokha, a globally-recognized leader who has devoted his life to furthering Cambodian democracy, represents a serious step backward for a country that had made progress in recent years,” IRI said in a statement in early September.
US Senators John McCain and Dick Durbin called for targeted sanctions on senior government officials.
The US State Department has questioned whether the government can organize credible national elections in 2018.
Olivia Enos of the Heritage Foundation said the credibility of the 2018 election has been compromised and democracy is under threat. She said the US has an obligation to hold Cambodia accountable as a signatory of the Paris Peace Accords.
“Without a swift response from the US, any hope of a free and prosperous Cambodia may actually be gone already,” she said.
Enos urged the donor community to take concrete action, for instance, a visa ban.
Tensions between the CPP and CNRP have been simmering since CPP lawmakers amended the political parties law to force Sam Rainsy, former CNRP president, to resign from his party.
Then in local elections in June, the CNRP has won control of over 489 communes, compared to just 40 in the 2012 elections.
Peter Maguire, author of “Facing Death in Cambodia”, said that the international community would be reluctant to put any significant pressure on the government so far because it has failed to rein in Hun Sen since the UN-sponsored election in 1993.
“It’s a bleak time for democracy in Cambodia,” he said. “But democracy in Cambodia was built on sand because the UN elections were very shaky at best.”
Human Rights Watch said the international pressure was proving “too little and too late.”
“We’ve been telling them for a long time that this is going to happen and that they need to act, they need to speak up. They need to explain what the consequences would be and they need to prepare to implement those consequences if this ever happened,” Adams said. “And none of that occurred.”
With China’s backing many countries in Southeast Asia are now shifting towards a strict definition of national sovereignty and interest and rejecting the Western model, Maguire said.
“It’s convenient in this case for the Cambodians because of the backing of China, which will provide them with more financial assistance than the United States or the West without any human rights requirements,” he added. “So this is a new phenomenon. It’s just accelerating very dramatically in the last few months.”
However, Elizabeth Becker, author of "When The War Was Over", argued that despite Prime Minister Hun Sen taking advantage of regional politics to turn the country into a one-party state, the international community has invested billions of dollars to introduce multilateral democratic institutions, which won’t disappear overnight.
“Yes, Hun Sen is trying to get rid of some of them, but there is now 20 plus years of experience,” said Becker. “Twenty plus years where Cambodians took wonderful advantage of the opportunity. The arts are thriving. The sense of democracy and communications is thriving, so that’s what I mean. It won’t disappear overnight and that is the background that is going to be very helpful.”